Knowing how to write a good headline is one of the most important copywriting skills you can develop.
As a creative person by nature, I’ve struggled with writing headlines in the past.
I’d get caught up in trying to make it too original or way too abstract, which usually meant too many words and a really unclear message.
That’s BAD copywriting.
But I didn’t know that at the time.
I got way too caught up in trying to impress readers with how creatively unique I could make my headline.
Which of course leads the reader nowhere.
The goal of a headline (for online media) is to get the reader to do one of two things:
- Click on something – an article link, a video thumbnail, an email message, etc.
- Read the rest of the copy – like the subtitle (if there is one) and the body.
Are you writing your headlines with these two possible end goals in mind?
If not, it’s worth taking the time to understand how headlines work.
Remember, clients aren’t hiring you to simply write words that fill white space.
They expect your words to get them results—like higher engagement, clickthroughs or conversions.
It’s up to you to develop your headline writing skills so you can deliver the results your clients are looking for.
How to Grab the Reader’s Attention With a Great Headline
The first thing a great headline does is get the reader to take notice.
Most great headlines achieve this by:
1. Offering a strong benefit.
2. Sparking genuine curiosity.
Think about your own experience with reading headlines.
You skim through a headline quickly and make a decision to read or pass within a fraction of a second.
If it doesn’t promise to add value to your life or trigger your hunger for novelty, then why bother?
Headlines That Offer a Strong Benefit
Here’s an example of a benefit-driven headline:
How to Use Transitional Behaviour Segmentation to Grow Your CLV
The benefit here is “Grow Your CLV.”
Imagine if the writer stopped at “How to Use Transitional Behaviour Segmentation.”
It doesn’t quite have the same enticing effect as “How to Use Transitional Behaviour Segmentation to Grow Your CLV,” does it?
Sure, it’s longer, but not by much.
Now this headline might sound super uninteresting to you, but to a business owner who knows what CLV stands for (Customer Lifetime Value) and is invested in email marketing, it’s enough to entice them to click or keep reading.
Keep in mind that great headlines are always tailored toward the target reader, so naturally, they won’t be enticing to everyone.
Headlines That Spark Curiosity
Now let’s look at a handful of curiosity-driven email subject lines I’ve just pulled from my inbox:
I hate to be the bearer of bad news…
Are you passing on this?
How I added 10,000+ new subscribers to my email list
The first two are pretty vague, I know, and they wouldn’t work anywhere else but in email.
If you subscribed to someone’s email list, you probably did it for some kind of a benefit—like a product purchase, a freebie, a coupon, or something else.
Now that they’ve earned some level of trust from you, they’re trying to build a relationship with you via email.
But you already get a ton of emails every day, so they have to work extra hard to stand out in your inbox.
One way they do this is by writing a headline in a way that looks and sounds more personal.
Another way they do it is by making you wonder what’s in the body of the email.
Subject lines like “I hate to be the bearer of bad news…” and “Are you passing on this?” get you to click to find out exactly what they’re even talking about.
What bad news?
What are you passing on?
You can’t help but want to click on them.
The last email subject line (How I added 10,000+ new subscribers to my email list) is far more specific.
Unlike the first two, this headline could be used elsewhere—like in a blog post or on a landing page for a free resource.
This headline is designed to make you wonder how the heck this individual added so many subscribers to their email list.
In fact, one way to make it even better would be to tack on an impressive timeframe at the end.
“How I added 10,000+ new subscribers to my email list in 30 days”
Now THAT’S a great headline!
If you’re trying to build an email list, don’t tell me you’re not interested in finding out what’s behind this headline.
There are so many ways to experiment with improving on existing headlines, whether they’re you’re own or somebody else’s.
You could even take “How I added 10,000+ new subscribers to my email list” and spin it around so that it’s driven by a big benefit instead of curiosity.
“How to add 10,000+ new subscribers to your email list” is a benefit-driven variation that puts the focus on the reader’s needs and desires.
The headline is essentially reframed to bring awareness to a problem the reader is experiencing (not enough email subscribers) and presenting a solution.
The Best Headlines Include Both a Benefit and a Spark of Curiosity
Benefits and curiosity aren’t mutually exclusive components of headlines.
In fact, the best performing headlines are the ones that do a good job at enticing the reader with a big benefit, yet leave something to the unknown.
“How to add 10,000+ new subscribers to your email list” includes both—the benefit being lots of subscribers and the curiosity trigger coming from not knowing how.
If you want to really understand what kind of power is possible by integrating both benefits and curiosity into your headlines, check out some of the following headlines that were written by legendary copywriter Gary Halbert:
The Amazing Facelift In A Jar Used By Hollywood Stars Who Don’t Want Plastic Surgery!
At Last! Scientists Discover New Way To Look Younger In Just 17 Days!
Amazing New Formula From Beverly Hills Lets You Take Up To 10 Years Off Your Looks Without The Scars And Expense Of Plastic Surgery
The Amazing Money-Making Secret Of A Desperate Nerd From Ohio!
An Open Letter To Every Man And Woman In America Who Wants To Have Better Sex Without Feeling Guilty!
Don’t these headlines sound absolutely irresistible?!
Reading and studying some of the best headlines written by the pros is a great way to expand your understanding of what makes great copy.
You can also keep an eye out for headlines in the wild—in magazines you read, ads you see, websites you visit, and so on.
See if you can pick out the benefit.
Is there any element of curiosity?
How would you rewrite the headline to make it more enticing?
How to Write Great Headlines Yourself
You can read all of the best headlines in the world, but without practicing writing them yourself, you won’t get too far.
Theory is great for expanding your mind, but experience is where real growth occurs.
One of the best ways to get good at writing great headlines is by coming up with multiple variations for the same offer (or topic).
Upworthy is known for making this practice an integral part of its editorial process.
If you’re not familiar with Upworthy, all you need to know is that it’s a popular news media outlet thrives on the art of the headline.
Check out the steps that writers are expected to follow when they write headlines:
Sure, it sounds tedious and time consuming, but Upworthy uses this process because it works.
And it doesn’t just work for them—it can work for anyone who’s willing to put in the time and effort.
Try it as a daily practice if you want to become a wicked good headline writer.
Set aside 30 minutes to an hour of your time, then decide on an offer.
You could look around the room and pick an object as common as a houseplant to serve as your offer.
Or you could pick out an existing product or service you know about.
The possibilities are endless!
Once you determine the main benefit of the offer, start crafting your 25 headlines.
Ask yourself how can you integrate the element of cursorily into them.
A couple extra tips for making your headlines as excellent as possible:
Follow the 4 U’s copywriting formula.
Make sure that your headline is Useful, Urgent, Unique, and Ultra-Specific.
Also, follow the 3 C’s.
Be Clear, Concise, and Compelling.
Remember that your headline should deliver a complete message.
Even if something is left to the unknown for curiosity’s sake, the reader should be able to easily understand what’s being offered and what the benefit is.
If you think that the reader won’t be able to tell right away what’s being offered, try writing a few headlines with the brand or product name included with the selling promise.
Example: Caught Soon Enough, Early Tooth Decay Can Actually Be Repaired By Colgate!
Bonus: Plug Your Headline Into A Good Analyzer Tool
As freelance writers living and working in the 21st century, we have access to so many more tools and resources now thanks to the internet than ever before.
For this particular blog post, I want to recommend three of the best headline analyzer tools to help you dive even deeper into headline writing.
This tool determines how engaging your headline is, which is important if you’re trying to get the reader to click to find out more.
You’ll get a quality score out of 100 based on 300 unique variables.
Sharethrough will even tell you what your headline’s strengths are and give you a list of suggestions to make it even better.
Scroll down to see your engagement score on its own plus a separate impression score.
If clicks are what you’re looking to get, your impression score is going to matter a lot.
If you know anything about good copywriting, then you know that good copy always appeals to the reader’s deepest emotional pains and desires.
You might be surprised by how much emotional appeal your headline is lacking when you plug it into this tool.
When you do, you’ll get an Emotional Marketing Value (EMV) percentage.
The average professional copywriter’s headline has about a 30 to 40% EMV, so if yours is higher, then you deserve a pat on the back.
In addition to EMV, you’ll find out how the emotional significance of your headline is classified overall (intellectual, spiritual, etc.) and how this can help you.
This tool is designed to dissect your headline in terms of traffic potential, share-worthiness, and search result rankings.
You’ll get an overall score out of 100 followed by a breakdown of word balance components including common words, uncommon words, emotional words, and power words.
Scroll down to see extra details like what kind of sentiment your headline is characterized by and how skimmable it is.
If you decide to download the browser extension, you get access to two more measures of headline success: clarity and reading grade level.
Use these tools to gain insights about your headlines—not to try and get a perfect score.
Any tool that uses an algorithm also has its fair share of flaws.
I plugged a good headline (not mine) into one of the tools and it got a super low score.
You have to take context into consideration here and make sure you’re using the tools in alignment with with how your headline is going to be used.
Keep in mind that these tools are designed to be used for headlines that appear in the most popular places online, like on social media, blog posts, email subject lines, YouTube videos, landing pages, and so on.
They may not be quite as useful for determining the effectiveness of headlines for offline media sources like magazines, direct mail, pamphlets, and product packaging.
What’s your best tip for writing headlines?
I’d love to know what you think and hear about your healing pricing process.
Leave a comment below letting me know if you’ve used any of the tools or techniques described above, or if you have a new tip you’s like to share!